Of Roses and Kings

In this dark, skewed take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is now the Red Queen, and her maid must tread the fine line between favor and blame in this strange world.

 

 

“To the dungeon.” Those were the last words she said to me, and the reasons for them should be what I ponder. Instead all I can think about is the way her mouth curved, the tip of her tongue between her parted lips as she spoke.

The Red Queen controls everything. Such is the power of money, of influence, of her lovely, lying lips.

“It’s not my fault,” I protest, even as I step outside the palace into the dusk.

My escort, one lone guard, glances at me curiously.

“It’s not my fault,” I repeat.

He shoves me, hand between my shoulder blades. “Keep moving.”

“I’m not guilty.”

He doesn’t answer. I could kill him if I had a mind to, but I don’t. He’s just doing his job. It’s not personal. I’m accused of . . . well, honestly, I don’t know the list of charges this time. All I know is that I was in the Red Queen’s chambers, and now I’m in custody.

“I’m not innocent, but neither am I guilty,” I explain, more to myself than him.

He’s no one. His opinion means less than nothing.

He keeps silent as I follow him through the garden. My shoes are gone, and the road we follow is anything but soft. Knowing her, I wouldn’t be shocked if she had extra rocks or shards of glass carted in to cover the path. She’s always quick to remind me she’s in charge.

I lift my gaze from the path at a soft chuff of laughter to my left. The guard doesn’t notice the sound, but he’s not paid enough to notice. Or maybe he’s simply one of the rare Wonderland-born people. They never find the oddities worth noting, not the way those of us who came from the Original World do.

I stare into the wild foliage. There, nestled among rose blossoms as big as a child’s head, is Tom. With his dark skin, the garden, and the flowers, all I see is his eerily wide smile. No one else has such a grin, though, so there’s no mistaking him.

“Who goes there?” he calls out, official-like, as if he has the authority to question my transportation. Perhaps he might. Politics are a peculiar thing in any world, including this one.

The guard halts and peers into the greenery. “Guard 39, sir.”

Tom steps out with a bit of a pounce. He always gives the impression of something feral, grinning as he does, popping out of unexpected shadows more often than not.

If I were to like a man, I suspect it would be him.

“Ahhh, you have Rose.” Tom looks me up and down.

“Beatrice,” the guard corrects.

“But a rose by any other name is . . . If you are not a rose, what does that make you?”

The guard scrunches up his face in a most unflattering way. “This is Beatrice, the Red Queen’s maid.”

“Today.” Tom’s grin vanishes. “There are tomorrows and yesterdays, though. Are any of us both who were then and now?”

The guard nods as if this makes sense. I suppose, in a manner of speaking, it does. Once, a very long while ago, my name was not Beatrice. Before that, in the Original World, it was something else entirely.

Tom sidles up next to the guard and takes the keys from where they hang at the guard’s hip. The guard watches him, as do I. Who can resist such a being? Tom moves the way the loveliest music comes into being, as if it’s suddenly woven from nothing into something remarkable. Tom is like that—except he knows things in a way that makes me suspect he’s sometimes here when he’s not.

“I shall take Rose,” he pronounces.

Guard 39 looks perplexed at this. “Did the queen change the orders?”

Tom’s wide grin flashes back into being, and we all three undoubtedly know that whatever comes next is not the whole truth.

“Ah, does she ever not change them?” Tom asks.

The guard hands me over with no more than a cursory glance at the castle. Tom, for all his deceits, is trusted as few beings ever are in Wonderland. He is not in her employ, but he is not her enemy. Truthfully, I think he’s as much in charge as she is.

As the guard leaves, I feel Tom beside me, nearly vibrating with the difficulty of stillness. We stand there, watching Guard 39 return along the path we’ve traveled. I’m not sure if he’s going to the castle to ask for clarity or simply resuming whatever task he should’ve been attending if not for my sudden arrest.

Once the guard turns a bend in the garden path, Tom extends an elbow to me. “Come, my dear Rose. We shall walk a while.”

He doesn’t unshackle me, so linking my arm with his is not possible. I rattle my restraints slightly in answer.

“I see.”

Instead of removing the manacles, he twines his arm around mine, and we perambulate through the jungle-like growth. Tendrils seemingly reach out, snagging my hair and skirt. There’s a wildness here that suits me.

After several quiet moments, I tell him, “I never lied to her. I need you to believe me. I need someone to trust me.”

Tom’s toothy grin flashes in the dark. “Shall I admit I don’t care, dear Rose?”

“Why did you stop him from taking me to the dungeon, then?”

“That, my dear one, is a fine question.” He pats my arm as if I have earned a point in a game I didn’t realize we’d begun. Unlike me, unlike Alice, Tom is a native of this peculiar world. In the best of moods, he seems to consider if you’re worth toying with for a while or if you’re beneath his notice. Neither seems particularly pleasant.

“Do you believe me?” I ask.

He laughs, mouth stretching wider than human mouths ought to stretch.

“Alice would not like it if I believed you,” he says, bluntly getting to the lone truth of things. “Of course, she would not like it if I doubted you either.”

“I serve her best interests,” I tell him. “Whatever name you call me, or she calls me, I serve Alice.”

This is the truth that has left me here, chained in the garden, plucked from her room. It is also, apparently, the answer Tom sought. He peers at me, and then he reaches out. I don’t flinch—although any man reaching toward me is cause for discomfort. The side of his hand grazes my face as he plucks a dripping rose from a wild tangle of vines and thorns. A good third of the petals rain over me as he frees the blossom and weaves it into my hair.

“I serve Wonderland, Rose. Not this Red Queen. Not the last. Not the one before her . . . or the one who will follow Alice some day.”

“She trusts you.” It’s all I can say as we follow the sinuous path toward the dungeon—where, apparently, I am still going.

“More’s the pity,” he says.

We drift to silence then, broken only when he opens my cell door. The clank of it seems welcoming. Tom’s company has become oppressive.

I pull it closed. The keys clatter as he locks the cell and then reaches in to unshackle my wrists and attach the manacle to my ankle.

“Never unchain a killer unless you must,” he says cheerily.

“I serve the queen,” I repeat.

“No one with a bit of sense doubts that. They might not admit they realize it, and you will likely still lose your pretty head, Rose, but those of us who pay attention have always known where your loyalty belongs.” He pats my cheek and grins as he backs away, white teeth gleaming out of the shadows.

And then he’s gone.

 

The first time I stood before the queen, I knew she was why I’d fallen into Wonderland. She is my reason. I was meant for her.

I’d been here for four months, not entirely sure where here was or if being here was to last forever. Nothing made sense some days, but I’d been keeping my head down and had taken a position as a maid. It wasn’t much, but it kept me in tea and jam.

The day that changed my life was a Wednesday. Admittedly, most days here are Wednesday, but still, I noted it. Details matter when the queen is rumored to be a litigious sort.

“You, there.” A guard stood over me, close enough that I briefly considered mopping his shiny black boots. “Stand up.”

That part was easy enough—welcome, even. Being on my knees wasn’t a natural position, especially not before a man. Don’t mistake me: I’m not a misandrist. I dislike most people, men and women both. I maybe just dislike men a touch more.

“The queen needs you to clean the throne room,” he ordered.

“Now?”

He stared at me as if I were daft. “Of course, now. Everything she orders is now.

Months later, I’d understand, but I hadn’t yet learned that the Red Queen had made it a habit to lack patience. It was part of the illusion she crafted. No one thought her capable of the ruses she set into motion because her carefully constructed persona was that of an impatient, slightly mad, entirely indulgent woman.

But I digress.

The Red Queen had summoned me, and so I went to the throne room. It was a marvel of black and white tile, an elaborate game board where pawns maneuvered for power. She sat like a goddess on high, watching the courtiers seeking her attention and pointedly refusing them. The king, for all that he existed, was a shell of a man. He nodded and spoke as if she crafted lines for him at night and glancing at her with such hunger and fear that I pitied him almost as much as I envied him.

(I know now that this was the moment of my demise. She knew somehow, before I realized it, before I could hide. She knew I was hers to use and discard.)

When she turned to look at me, my fate was sealed. Golden ringlets framed a face that sculptors have carved and painters have captured. Her lips tilted into the smile that Helen once used to launch a war. I knew then that Lucifer fell for the same reason Adam did—because she willed it.

So, when she crooked her finger, I did what any sane woman would do: I turned and walked out of the room.

That was the first time she had me tossed in the dungeon. I wonder if today will be the last.

 

It’s midnight when she visits me. I know she’s here before the guard slips out of the small side door into a courtyard. Like I said, everyone knows she’s deadly, but no one else is mad enough to cross her.

It’s an honor I don’t have to share.

“Hello, Ally,” I murmur as she approaches out of the shadows. She’s an angel deigning to walk into the muck, illuminated by the candle she holds just so. It casts light onto her perfect face and bare throat.

“You never learn.”

I shrug. She’s not wrong. I’m not any more likely to change than she is. I was what I am when I arrived in Wonderland, formed into the raw stuff that landed me here in her domain. No one knows exactly why some people fall into this fantastic world, but we all know there are only two ways to get here—be born to it or fall into it. Those born here cannot leave. The rest of us must constantly worry that we’ll break the wrong rule and wake up in the Original World.

“Treason,” my queen adds, “is a very serious crime.”

“I wondered what the charge was this time,” I admit. “One never knows with you.”

She presses her lips together, and I see that they’re glossy with fresh lip-stain. I’m fool enough to be glad she still finds me worthy of painting those dangerous lips. The words that slide through them can condemn me to death; in fact, I suspect they have already done so if I’m charged with treason. I’d still sell a small country or two to have the Red Queen’s lips touch mine again.

“I must protect the crown,” she says, as if I don’t understand.

“He was a blight, Ally. Killing him was a gift.”

She tilts her head, looking at me curiously, and very softly says, “Well, of course, it was. You know that, and I know that.”

The Red Queen lifts a hand, summoning the constantly accessible ladies-in-waiting. Then she glances at the ground behind her. A chair—ivory with beautiful carved legs—materializes out of the shadows. Hands are all I see. The light of the queen’s candle doesn’t extend to the servants. Another woman reaches out of the shadows and places a matching footstool in front of the chair. Hands settle her skirts.

Alice sits without looking.

The chair, the stool, the dress, it will all be consigned to the fire by morning. The proof that she was here in the filth will be burned up like so many other things. My beloved is clever and cautious, despite what the people think.

I glance at Alice’s shoes. When she became queen, Alice adopted a madness that seems to be bound to her role in this world, as if being queen meant some level of madness was inevitable. She is her office in ways, but in the heart of the madness, Alice still exists. The last Red Queen had no such shoes, but Alice wears strange, lovely ones that defy logic. Today’s have a cut-out heel featuring teeth.

“Tell me.”

“Why?”

Tell me,” she repeats.

I sigh. I want to resist her, but I can’t. Maybe in the Original World, maybe if we were both back there, I could resist her charm. Here? Everything in me wants to resist, but I still give in.

“I love you,” I begin.

“And?”

“There is nothing I would deny you, Alice. Nothing.” I settle into the hard bunk of my dungeon cell. Briefly, I attempt to cross my legs, but am stopped by the clank of shackles. I stare at her through the bars and profess, “You are my world.”

And?” Her voice is different now. Softer. Hopeful.

“So, I killed him. For you, Ally. I murdered him because you wanted him to die.”

The Red Queen smiles at me in a way that makes me forget the filthy cell where I live now. I know then that I’d do it all again—and so much more—for the joy in her expression. She knows it, too. I suspect she knew before I did. She picked me. She groomed me to be the red hands of the queen.

“I never wanted the king to die, Beatrice,” she lies. “He was my husband, ordained so by Wonderland.”

And in her lie is the crux of the problem. The truth is that Alice wanted the crown. She won it from the last Red Queen, and so she became heir. She was the new queen, taking the throne, the power, the crown jewels—and the king. It was one almost perfect package.

The king, unfortunately, adored the Red Queen. Not Alice. Not the last queen. Not the one before her. He adored the queen—whichever one she was.

 

My time at the Red Castle was illuminating in ways I couldn’t explain. I went from nameless maid, ordered about by every guard and courtier in the palace, to her maid. She chose me.

That was the result of my first foray into the dungeon: She released me, renamed me, and I was New. I was hired as the Queen’s Personal Maid as if I were new to the castle. The head of the maids gave me a tour—including the very same rooms I’d cleaned the past four months.

My new name was Beatrice. I cannot recall the old name. It no longer matters.

As Beatrice I would wear a dress befitting the Queen’s Personal Maid. I hate dresses, but the pay was great. I signed my new name on the form presented to me, and so it was to be.

On my second day as Beatrice I arrived to work, and I prepared to clean her royal chambers. I assumed that would require tidying her sitting room, possibly waiting to fetch her tea or her beloved tiny cakes. The queen, for all of her airs and etiquette, was fond of the hallucinogenic bakery—so much so that she’d burned it down and offered the bakers positions in the palace as Royal Bakers.

I was wrong, of course. I arrived to find my employer naked and pacing. The room itself would take half a day to clean. Dresses, stockings, and jewelry were strewn everywhere as if she had thrown them in frustration.

“How am I to dress without my maid?” She stomped her foot, frowned at it as if it ought to make a noise even though she wore no shoe and stood on thick carpet. She picked up a book and tossed it at the wall as she stomped again. When the book made an apparently satisfying noise, she smiled at her foot.

My mouth gaped open in confusion.

“We’re all a little mad here, Beatrice,” she explained conspiratorially.

I nodded. What else was I to do?

“I need cleaning and dressing.” Alice gestured with her left hand.

Women appeared from behind curtains. They all stared at her feet as they glided forward. Each woman was laden down with some sort of bathing supply: buckets, sponges, soaps, and towels. Several slid a large tub toward the windows. None spoke.

They left after depositing the mound of supplies alongside the tub. Once they’d gone, the queen stared at me expectantly. She looked at the tub. She looked back at me. Surely, she didn’t require aid to climb into a tub.

“Your Highness?”

The Red Queen looked at me, as if my speaking was a shock.

“Shall I come back or clean now?” I gestured around the room. The clothing and jewelry that were everywhere—except in the path the tub had traveled—should have been my task as a maid.

“Beatrice, truly?” She laughed as if I were ludicrous. “I need cleaning and dressing. Are you or are you not my maid?”

Even then, I was not so unaware of her reputation. The queen’s madness was legendary. Her temper, however, was more so. I wasn’t about to risk my life if I misunderstood the way she was watching me.

“Will I be sent back to the dungeon for touching you?” I asked.

“Not today.”

“For not touching you?”

“No.” She offered me a rare, almost honest moment. “I would like you to please me, Beatrice. I selected you to do so, but there are plenty willing to look after my needs if you’re not so inclined.”

She glanced toward the curtains behind which her ladies-in-waiting stood or sat expectantly. “I have people who exist to take care of everything I seek. All volunteers. I don’t see the point in bedding the unwilling.”

I didn’t ask questions. Not about them. Not about the king. Not about anything. I simply set about doing as the queen desired. I bathed her, and I dried her. I knelt in awe as she stretched out before me on the floor. There—amidst satins and silks, diamonds and rubies, dresses and crowns—the Red Queen asked, “Love me?”

And so, I did.

Afterward, she asked, “Would you do anything I wanted?”

“No,” I lied.

She smiled, and I felt my soul shudder in fear.

“That will change,” she warned me.

I said nothing.

“You may never leave me, Beatrice.” The Red Queen gripped my hands in hers. “Even when I tell you to go, you must not leave me.”

And then she sent me to wait with the other ladies-in-waiting and summoned the king.

 

“I didn’t hate him,” the Red Queen says.

I’m not sure if she’s lying. I suspect this is one of the strange, precious moments of honesty that can too often be overlooked in the maze of lies and madness that make up my beloved Alice.

It doesn’t matter, though.

“Will I be finishing my days in your dungeon or meeting the executioner?” I ask.

“Must you be difficult, Beatrice?”

I smile. She only wants me because I am difficult. The hardest task in my life is finding ways to be so. If I am complacent, if she knows I’d sell my soul at her whim, she’d be bored. Alice never meant to be a queen. She chose it over expulsion from Wonderland. In essence, she chose madness over death.

The power, on the other hand, she enjoys far too much to surrender.

“Were you after my crown?” She touches her head. Today’s crown is blood ruby and onyx. Like the rest of her crowns, it’s a small circlet, so simple it could be mistaken for a headband.

No mere citizen of Wonderland may wear a crown. A “crown” is any metal or jeweled ornament that rests atop one’s head. It’s one of the gentlest rules enacted by Her Mad Majesty.

“I do not want your crown, Alice.” I keep my voice soft as we talk. The darkness makes it hard to be loud. “Nor the weight of it.”

“I see.”

“If I wanted your crown, I’d have killed you, not the king,” I point out.

“True,” she muses. “But a queen must have a king. That is a rule.”

To this, I have no answer. Wonderland is still a mystery to me. We strangers arrive here with no clue as to what it means, why us, why any of it.

“If I break the rules, I have to go back,” Alice whispers. “I can’t go back, Beatrice. I can’t. I remember enough to know that I would rather die here than return to the Original World.”

I want to hold her. When Alice is like this, lost and more frightened than mad, I want to be the knight who rescues her, the person who saves her. I killed the king. I’d do far worse for love of her.

 

“I hate him,” the queen told me as we were having the required afternoon tea. “I eat the little cakes and smoke the flowers to bear it.”

I brushed her hair as she spoke. It was an excuse, not the task of a maid. No one really could overrule her, though—except him. I often thought she hated him simply for that.

“He smells.” She paused and folded her hands. “He goes off to do who knows what, and I am in charge. I make all the choices. I rule. He . . . I’m not sure what a Red King does, but it certainly isn’t helpful.”

“Do you need help?”

I watched in the looking glass as the queen pouted. Her reflection did so sooner than the queen herself, who was sitting between my legs on the floor in a very un-royal way. Even now, however, I knew there was a level of dishonesty in her. My beloved Alice was rarely truthful unless we were both naked. Without her royal clothes, without the Red Queen’s crown, she was nearly sane. She was even honest in the way of regular folks sometimes.

“I don’t need help with anything,” Alice lied. “I can do it all myself.”

We were interrupted by the arrival of Lord Hare, which was what the pale, red-eyed man called himself these days. One of the myriad guards that roamed the Red Castle stood beyond the curtains and announced, loudly, that Lord Hare had arrived.

Alice stood and shoved her feet into today’s absurd red shoes. Through some magic or machination, this pair had long-lashed eyes that stared and fluttered as if someone were trapped within the shoes. Maybe they were.

“I hate him,” Alice muttered.

I didn’t ask which him. She was the Red Queen, and back in her royal garb, her answers were as likely to be true as to be utter gibberish. The magic of the place changed reality. It changed her. If I pondered the matter, I knew I’d realize it had changed me—but why would I dwell on it? I chose Wonderland, and my choice had led me to her. The rest was immaterial.

I would never leave her.

“My dress,” she prompted me, dropping her robe to the floor. Her voice was imperious, and the gesture matched. Her eyes, however, told me otherwise. My poor, delicate Alice. She was trapped in ways I could only try to fathom.

I picked up the dress for the day. Pale blue. White sprigs. It reminded her subjects that she was once just a girl, facing an irrational queen. No matter that she’d become just as mad. No matter that she was as likely to behead a teapot as her once-trusted allies.

I buttoned it up the back, fingertips lingering long enough to remind her that I was here, that I was hers, but not so long that she’d need to reprimand me. I straightened her full, heavy skirt by reaching under it with the excuse of a twisted fold of cloth.

Alice stood mute as my hands touched her softly.

“That won’t do,” she grumbled. “I have meetings. Lord Hare waits.”

As I made to remove my hand, she added, “Beatrice, really? Dispense with the posture of gentility.”

“Of course, my queen.”

Alice wasn’t born and bred to be a queen. She was once an impulsive girl who ignored the rules. Such traits make for a temperamental queen—and exactly the sort of lover I cherished.

I dispensed with everything gentle until the mad queen was calm again.

When the Red Queen descended to attend her courtiers and disloyal subjects, I followed with the flock of ladies-in-waiting. I was never quite sure what they did now that she claimed that I was the only woman in her bed, but I wasn’t about to ask. My queen would lie, and I would accept it.

“Alice, my dear!” Lord Hare greeted her far too familiarly, and then he turned away from the Red King—who was in attendance suddenly, too—with a meek, “Sire.”

The Red King had no concerns, no worry over Lord Hare’s manner. The king was too interested in the latest rifle he was being presented. If not hunting, the man was off racing. If not racing, he was with his own ladies-in-waiting. The Red King served no purpose. He existed to create the next heir, to procreate. I had no idea if he’d ever achieved such a thing with the other Red Queens.

All I knew for sure was that when Alice was fertile, the Red King felt pulled by a mighty urge to rut with her. My queen initially had endured it. Over time, however, the king’s drink was spiked so he could not inconvenience her.

Briefly, the king smiled in her direction, but his hands were on the hunting rifle.

Lord Hare, however, reached for the queen as if to hug her.

“Bunny,” Alice murmured in seemingly fond greeting, but I knew it was a rebuke for greeting her by name instead of her title.

The pale man flushed red and bowed deeply. “Your Highness. I meant no offense. None.”

He had concerns that he needed to discuss, and to be honest, I had no interest in hearing them. I watched instead as the king waved off drink after drink. I knew there was trouble ahead. I wasn’t sure what was coming, but life in Wonderland taught me to listen to my paranoia and star charts the way I had once watched the news.

My queen was oblivious to the threat, and I was left with a choice.

“Take this to His Highness,” I told a passing maid. I pulled a vial of sleeping medicine from my pocket. I didn’t use it myself, but I had brought over from the Original World a bit of this and that. Admittedly, a few times I had stirred it into Alice’s tea when I had things to do, but I had to protect her—even from herself.

Anyone would’ve done the same in my place.

 

“Do you remember before?” the queen asks me suddenly. Her voice and the candle are the only lights in the dungeon.

“Before?”

“Before here, Beatrice.” Her voice is urgent now, and I want to fix it. Fix all of it. Anything. Nothing. Whatever will make her happy. “Do you remember before Wonderland?”

I shrug. I suspect I could recall it if I wanted to try. There was a life there, a place I’d existed. People. Pain. Pills. There were things in my mind best left ignored, though, and I was certain that this was one of them.

“Who were you?”

“No one,” I lie.

We both know I’m lying, though. I’m not good at it here. Before Wonderland I was an excellent liar. My entire world was balanced on the edge of lies, and I felt the end closing in. That’s why I took the chance, why I came here.

“You are the only person I send to the dungeon repeatedly,” Alice confesses. “I have to, you know. It’s a rule. I must send you. I must punish you.”

“A rule?”

“Who were you, Beatrice?” she asks again.

Images clamber to be given voice. A man dead at my feet. A man bleeding. A man with a knife blade in his belly.

“My hand held the knife,” I say quietly.

The Red Queen lacks context, does not see the men—for there are many, not one—whose faces I see. She hears enough, though, to nod.

“Deserving?” she asks.

Alice is, after all, a woman who has shrieked to have the heads of her enemies severed for offenses various and sundry. Spilling blood does not bother her.

I close my eyes and let the stories flow into my mind. Once I was not Beatrice, once I was not in Wonderland—I was a volunteer. Shelters. Hotlines. Hospitals. I watched for men who were not stopped by the law, and I stopped them. No guardian angel. I did it because I wanted to kill, and I had too much religion to kill without cause. Still a murderer. Still a serial killer, if I were to use the words of the Original World.

Without opening my eyes, I nod and declare, “The dead deserved to die.”

Another face looms in my memories, one I shove back. I still hear my father’s voice, telling me how and where to press the tip of the knife while my mother prays on her knees next to the man sprawled out in the leaves. I open my eyes to erase that particular memory. His death is one of the reasons I must be sent to dungeons now.

“All deserving,” I say in a drier voice.

The ones in my childhood don’t count. They never counted because if I hadn’t done it, they’d still have died. They could not count, and so I choose to forget them.

The Red Queen stands and steps closer to the bars of my cell. She reaches out and places both hands on the metal cage. So quietly that no one else—even the ladies-in-waiting—would hear, she tells me, “The Red King deserved it, too.”

 

“Beatrice!”

“Beatrice!”

“Beatrice, Beatrice, Beatrice!”

I wake to the strange in-tandem voices that seem to be caught in a call-and-response loop. While it is my name they call, they are not currently interested in my reply. I’m not sure what to do. I could interrupt, but it’s dreadfully dull in the dungeon. The only other alternative is to wait until they notice that I am awake. I sit in my cell and watch.

“We’ll miss teatime,” Mark Hare says as he stares into his teacup.

“Hush, dear. It’s always a grand time to have tea!” His companion, oddly, is a stranger to me—or at least I think he is. A ridiculous hat, oversized and garish, perches on his head and obscures his face. In the dim light of the dungeon, I would venture to say that the hat is puce, but I suppose it might be eggplant. I’m certain it’s not brown. Nothing quite so ordinary as brown will do for any of the natives of Wonderland.

Mark, whom I only know because he is a lesser cousin of Lord Hare and has been lingering around the palace far too often, leans on the wall beside my cell and tosses his teacup over his shoulder. “Clean cup, if you please.”

From the shadows a pale, shaking hand reaches out with a cup of tea in a saucer. Tea sloshes over the sides of the cup.

“Without any biscuits?” his hatted companion asks in a tone that can only be called scandalized. “You barbarian! You . . . you . . . animal.

Mark flashes teeth in the sort of smile that is more feral than not and says, “Hop, hop.”

The hatted man tsks at him—and then at me. “Eavesdropping. Quite the worst sort of behavior, you know.”

“Worse than lacking biscuits?” I ask.

The men both hum and mutter, lost easily in a curious sort of riddling that the Wonderlandians are prone to. Mark taps a finger on the teacup, sloshing the liquid over the edges in a rhythmic way. The hatted man paces and has a little chat with himself. Suddenly, as if responding to signal that I missed, they both say in unison, “Quite so!”

I nod. Really, what else could I do? For all the ways that being here changes a woman, at the heart of it all, I am still me. I see no need to engage more nonsense or nuisance than necessary. Mark and the hatted man are not rational; few of the inhabitants of this place are. In truth, I rather like it. A bit of madness makes the things that one must do seem sane sometimes.

At least that’s my theory.

Mark watches me as he holds out a hand and demands, “Biscuit!”

The same pale, quivering hand as before extends. This time it holds a biscuit. A key-shaped biscuit is placed gently onto his open palm.

Mark extends the key-biscuit to me almost the moment it touches his palm. “Will you have tea with us, Beatrice?”

“Indeed,” I murmur with as much enthusiasm as I can.

He hands me the key-biscuit and . . . waits. No instructions. No anything.

“What do I do with a biscuit?”

“Marvelous riddle!” the hatted man exclaims with a clap. He claps several more times, muttering a series of queries that my question has sparked as he begins to pace. “A biscuit . . . What does a biscuit do? What is a biscuit?”

“Does it signify?” Mark asks.

“A biscuit?”

“A biscuit,” Mark confirms with a nod.

As they pace and ponder, I decide that there are—as happens regularly in this weird world—only a few choices. One, I eat the biscuit. Two, I see if the biscuit is a key. Three, I do nothing. I’m not great at nothing, and I have been starving since I was left to rot in Alice’s dungeon. On the other hand, if it failed as a key, I could eat the rest.

“Key it is.”

I reach between the bars of my cell with the biscuit key, shove it in the lock as carefully as one can with a biscuit, and try to turn it. Baked brown pastry flakes to the ground. Inside the key-biscuit is an actual key, solid, metal, and effectively granting my freedom. The lock turns.

“She said you’d know!” the hatted man exclaims. “She said it true.”

Mark looks at me, shrugs, and smiles.

I shove the door open with a squeak and screech—not the door’s sounds, mind you. Mark Hare and his awkward hat-wearing companion provide sound effects as the door opens.

The dilemma, unfortunately, is what to do next. Leaving the cell or– No, there is no dilemma. I love Alice, cherish her in a way that a fish loves water or an oyster hides a pearl or any number of explanations. The point is that she is both essential and my treasure.

But I do not want to die. I’ve held on to my head despite everything. This time, perhaps, I will not evade the executioner unless I leave. Then I might literally evade him. It is my best hope.

 

The king is a pig. Some days I thought he might become so in form. He is a bore, a vulgar, rutting thing, voracious in appetite. In so many ways, the Red King is porcine. Yet Alice titters and laughs when he makes crude jokes. She pats his cheeks. She ruffles his hair.

I hate him.

“I don’t want a brat,” Alice exclaims as I rub oil into her skin. “If he continues as he does, I’ll be fat and mad.”

“Plenty of women—”

“What if I get sent back?” Alice asks softly. She is prone under me, belly down on her bed, naked but for another pair of absurd shoes and a jagged crown crookedly affixed atop her head. “What if I have a child, a native of this place, and I get sent home?”

I cannot tell her she won’t. None of us who’ve fallen into this world know when our time will suddenly end. In full truth, I wonder sometimes if we are all in a shared coma, or if we are dead, or highly medicated. There have been times in my life when injury, death, and medication were all likely.

“I don’t want him to touch me,” Alice admits. “Even if I wanted a squalling infant, I wouldn’t want him to touch me.”

“He’s the king. Shouldn’t you . . . want him, or whatever?” I’m not completely clear on how the Wonderland things work, but if he wants the queen—every queen regardless of the woman under the crown—shouldn’t she want him, too?

“I’ve tried,” Alice says, almost calmly.

Then, she screams. Once. Twice. Several more times. She’s still on her stomach, naked under me.

Guards come. A knight, tall and polished and far more dignified than most of the people here, enters the room.

“Are you in danger, m’lady?”

“Every day,” Alice says. “Bring me something to please me. Plan a ball. Find me a new dress. Burn it all down.”

“Your Majesty?” the knight asks.

The Red Queen stands, spilling me to the floor in her fit of temper. Two ladies-in-waiting begin to dress her. No one is surprised by her fits or moods. She stares at them all, gaze fixated on the knight.

“You. Come at midnight.”

He says nothing, simply bows and leaves.

I wonder at the plan she has in mind, but Alice answers me before I ask: “Perhaps if I watch him rut with you—”

“No.”

“I cannot stand the king’s touch,” she says. “If I am aroused—”

“No, Ally.”

“What am I to do?” She looks lost, the confused girl who sometimes peers out of the mad queen’s eyes stares at me.

“I’ll fix it.” I know before the next heartbeat that my plan is deadly, that there are no answers here that will not result in disaster. However, for my queen, there are no lines I cannot step beyond. She is my life.

I have killed for far less rational reasons.

“Tonight?” Alice looks as if she’s holding her breath.

I nod and think of my options. I have a king to kill, and there are no guns in Wonderland. It’s messier without the slick, simple finality of a bullet. Simple maids have no need of sharp knives or swords, but there was a knight here moments ago.

“At midnight, you will seduce him,” I order my queen.

“The knight?”

“It’s treason to touch the queen,” Alice reminds me. “My maid might do so, but a knight . . .”

“I did not say to fuck him.” I shake my head. She’s not so daft as this. “Seduce him and have him sent to your lovely dungeon. I will collect the weapons he leaves behind.”

“To keep me safe,” she adds.

We do not discuss what we both know I’ll do once I have his weapon. That is too direct. That is, in its truest terms, treason.

 

When I leave the cell and the dungeon, both Mark and the hatted man take off. Whatever plot they agreed to did not include staying in the company of the woman who murdered the king.

“Regicide makes a girl a bit of an outcast,” I announce, knowing Tom’s there. I’m sure of it before his teeth appear in the dark. Tom, for all that he claims not to be the puppet master of this world, is nearby.

In the Original World, in the Crescent City that was my last home, I would have thought that Tom was a tour guide dressed up as Baron Samedi. If ever there was sexier man, I’m not sure where or when he was. Tom, unfortunately, is also the single most terrifying man in the whole of Wonderland. Like the finest bluesman in all of New Orleans or the pirate at the helm of a cutthroat crew, Tom is a force unto himself.

“The queen must have a king,” he announces. “There is a necessary order.”

“And? Will I be calling you the Red King soon?”

Tom laughs, and I am reminded of my father when he was luring victims to his traps. He was the spider, entrapping fly after ladybug after lesser spider. They all died because he willed it so. Those who lived, who avoided his lair, did so at his whim. Tom is more like that man who raised me than anyone I’ve ever met.

“I am not interested in surrendering my power, Rose.” He extends his arm, and we begin to walk.

A woman is dragged toward the dungeon as we continue down the flower-lined path. “My name is not Beatrice!”

“Shame about the queen’s maid.” Tom glances at her. “Treason is such an ugly thing.”

I miss a step. My feet tangle. “What?”

“She’ll be beheaded at dawn.” He shrugs. “We must protect the throne, Rose.”

“She’ll die?” I glance in her direction. “That woman will die?”

“Indeed.” Tom gestures for me to go ahead of him. “Someone must.”

And I know that this is one of those moments, a test of my character. Do I let another woman die so that I might live? I can’t say that I want to die. I can’t even say that I haven’t taken lives. None of them were truly innocent, though. No one is innocent.

“Would it help if you knew she wasn’t, either?” He smiles, seeming genuine for a change, even trustworthy. “Innocent, I mean.”

I stare. “How did you know I . . .”

“You are as readable as a book in a language I almost know, Rose.” Tom’s voice is light. “You ought to be grateful I’m not scandalized by your salacious thoughts in my direction.” He leans in, kisses the tip of my nose, and adds, “And that I don’t tell Alice.”

“I love her,” I say. “You wouldn’t be the first man I was willing to kill to make her smile.”

And there, in the dark garden, Tom laughs. “You’ll make a fabulous consort.”

“A what?”

“A king, dear Rose. The role is unfilled, and the queen is useless since she has lost you.” Tom shook his head. “We have options. You could become queen, but then I’d still need a king to fill the vacancy you created. I could let Alice descend in madness and bring in a new queen to oust her, as Alice herself did with the last regent. Or . . .”

He looks down at me, and I realize I’ve slid to the ground.

You become the king. Adore Alice and keep her in check, or if you prefer, I could make you a knight. Move a knight into the king’s position.”

There are words. Millions of words I know. Most of them aren’t available in this instant.

“I’d kill him,” I whisper.

“Kill the knight, too?” Tom sounds aghast. He puts his hand to his chest in faux shock. “You truly are bloodthirsty enough to be queen, Rose. That was my plan, you know. Alice seemed so promising, but she became mad. They all do—such is the nature of queens.”

“And Wonderland,” I add with more bite than I ought.

He laughs again. “I simply want a world as beautiful as can be, and it gets so dreadfully boring if it’s only Wonderlandians here.”

Suddenly, I realize with strange certainty that this world is his. We are all Tom’s puppets. Me, Alice, Lord Hare, Mark, the nameless knight, all of us. Maybe it should bother me, but we are puppets with lives and opinions.

“If Alice is to be queen, she needs a king,” Tom says.

“Yes.” My answer is neither enough nor too much. It is all that is left to say when the question is Alice. I will serve her. Not Tom. Not his world. I exist for Alice.

 

The coronation is a lavish affair. In true Wonderland fashion, there are as many impossibilities as can be. The band plays late into the night, and Lord Hare decides to replace the water for the teapots with white liquor. Tall, leggy women in pink dresses walk with the exaggerated elegance of drunken flamingoes, and an assortment of men who look like bloated, sullen toads sit at most every table.

“They wish they were you,” Tom whispers as he escorts me to the rose-covered archway where the king’s crown rests on a pink velvet cushion.

“I’d kill them,” I whisper back. I glance to my side and clarify: “Each and every one until there were no men left to bother her.”

Tom gives me another toothy smile.

At the front of the crowded gathering, we stop. Beside Alice is the knight who was almost chosen to be king. He gazes at Alice in awe, and she smiles briefly in his direction.

I kneel before her and make a mental note to kill the knight after all.

She extends her left hand and takes his sword.

When my beloved lifts the blade into the air, I see bloodlust in her eyes. My Alice is mad. She debates my death. It is neither the first nor the last time.

Then, steadily, she lowers the blade and pronounces, “I knight thee, Lord Rose. Stand and be recognized.”

I stand, face the assembled crowd of both Wonderlandians and imports from the Original World. None of them matter. They are background at my union with the perfect woman.

I take Alice’s hand. “My love. My queen. There is nothing I won’t do for you. No life I won’t end. No obstacle I won’t conquer.”

“Such is the nature of the Red King,” Alice murmurs.

She’s not wrong.

“I’ll be better, though,” I swear. I stare into her perfect face. “For you, my love. I’ll be better.”

Tom steps up to my other side.

“Bow and be named,” he says.

I can’t look away from Alice, but I bow my head as directed. The crown feels heavy, a part of me now as if silver thorns are slipping from the beautiful circlet and driving into my skull.

“I present to you Lord Rose, Red King of Wonderland,” Tom pronounces.

As our subjects cheer, I lead Alice to the dance floor and take my bride, my queen, into my arms.

“No children,” I swear to her. “No ignoring you for this or that lord or hobby.”

Alice looks at me in hope.

“And if Lord Hare or any of the rest offend you, my beloved, I shall serve you their heads on jeweled platters.”

The Red Queen laughs gleefully, and behind us, under the rose-bedecked arbor, I see Tom tip his head to me.

Ours is a mad, mad world, and I am grateful to serve my queen.

 

“Of Roses and Kings” copyright © 2020 by Melissa Marr
Art copyright © by Ashley Mackenzie

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